The 2018 Betway UK Snooker Championship gets under way at the Barbican Centre in York on November 27, with 128 of the world’s best players vying to deliver at one of the sport’s most prestigious events.
As part of snooker’s Triple Crown (alongside the World Championship and the Masters), the likes of John Higgins, Judd Trump and defending champion Ronnie O’Sullivan will be competing for glory and the £170,000 winner’s purse that comes with it.
But at the other end of the spectrum, plenty of lesser-known players will be battling to achieve mini goals of their own.
Leicester’s Joe O’Connor is in his first season as a professional after winning the 2018 English Amateur Championship in June.
For O’Connor, the UK Championship is just another tournament in a busy campaign in which he is looking to gain valuable experience and climb the rankings table.
He said: “I’m just looking to start to win matches and progress on the tour, so the size of the competition doesn’t really matter to me.
“I’m going to enter anything and everything to gain my experience and progress.”
While still only 23, O’Connor was something of a latecomer to the game after starting out as a pool player.
“I started playing pool when I was about 11,” he said. “I was pretty successful at it, but there was no money in it so I transferred to snooker. I still played pool until I was 18, so snooker wasn’t a full-time thing to start with.
“Some of the other players started playing snooker at about eight, nine or 10. I’m a few years behind but I seem to have caught a few of them up.”
Despite this season being his first as a professional, this will be O’Connor’s third UK Championship. He lined up against former world champions Neil Robertson and Mark Selby in the first rounds of the 2014 and 2015 championships.
He said: “It was good to get those experiences in front of big crowds against top players before all the pressure of the rankings came into it later.
“I had a period of about two years where I got invited to pretty much every tournament, which looking back has helped me because as soon as I turned pro, it was nothing new and I could just get on with playing snooker.”
Those invitations came about due to O’Connor’s performances in Q School, an amateur competition that serves as the qualification process to the professional game. O’Connor is now getting used to being a full-time snooker player.
He said: “If I was to sum up the transition from amateur snooker to professional snooker in one word, it would be consistency. Even though a lot of the top amateurs can do what the pros can do, it’s just about doing it on a regular basis. When they’re on form, 99% of the professionals can go various amounts of frames without missing.
“I’m practising six days a week. The more hours you put in, I think the consistency will come.”
World champion Mark Williams was vocal earlier in the year about the lack of emerging British talent in snooker. He argued that more wildcard opportunities are needed to help young players compete with players such as him who have been at the top of the game for a number of years, as well as the vast amount of Chinese players coming through the ranks. O’Connor believes that there simply aren’t enough people playing the game in the UK.
He said: “It’s hard for me to say when someone like Mark Williams has been in both generations and I’m just coming into the game. I think there are good players out there, but I don’t know if there are many players like, for example Ronnie O’Sullivan or John Higgins.
“Snooker’s not very popular in school. Unless you know people who are already involved in the game, you don’t come home one day and say, ‘I want to play snooker’. If so many hundred people are playing snooker, the chances of 10 or 20 being good aren’t that high. If you compare that to China where thousands and thousands are playing, it is almost guaranteed that some of them are going to be really good.
“They love it over there and they are very good, but the support that they get is so much more than what we get.”
World Champion Mark Williams is concerned about the lack of emerging British talent in snooker.
O’Connor believes Barry Hearn’s commitment to increasing prize money and the exposure of snooker may help inspire a new generation of snooker players.
“He’s done a lot for the game so far. In a few years to come, you don’t know what it could be like,” he said.
O’Connor faces seasoned professional Ryan Day in the first round of the UK Championship on November 28 and is under no illusion about the challenge he faces.
He said: “If I’m not playing well, I can almost rule myself out. I’m going to have to dig really deep to try and get a win out of it, whereas he might be able to not play not at the top of his game and still be very good.”
Looking beyond the tournament, O’Connor has set himself some realistic targets as he looks to remain on the professional tour beyond his two-year card.
He said: “There’s another two tournaments before Christmas – the Scottish Open and then the German Masters qualifiers.
“The main aim at the minute is to try to get into the top 80 before the World Championships, so then I’d play a lower-ranked player in the first qualifying match. The end goal is to get into the top 64, but I would hope that I’d do well enough in the second year to stay on through the one year list.”
Featured photograph/Will Johnston